The Social Network: Some Thoughts

I finally saw the new film, The Social Network, last night. It’s not a film predominately about language, but there are a few points to make about language in regard to the movie. First, I was deeply impressed, as were so many others apparently, by Jessie Eisenberg’s performance as Mark Zuckerberg.  I don’t know whether Eisenberg’s performance portrayed Zuckerberg’s personality accurately or not (I know very little about Zuckerberg as an individual), but Eisenberg brilliantly portrayed the traits of a highly intelligent, emotionally fragile, obsessively-driven, socially-inept person. I think he was able to achieve this to a large extent by how he used his voice: his rapid-fire prosody and his quick, contemptuous intonations, coupled with a confident command and articulation of multi-syllable words. It’s not the sort of linguistic tour de force we see frequently in American films. One of my personal peeves in the acting of many American actors (there are shining exceptions) is their lack of using their voice as a tool to shape their character. I would have to say that even if you find actors such as Tom Cruise, Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio engaging in films, their voices, their intonation and pronunciation are pretty much exactly how these people sound in real life. And they sound and talk essentially the same way in all films. Meryl Streep is a striking counterexample to this trend, but there aren’t many others. Given how much voice and language convey about an individual, it’s surprising more attention isn’t paid to it. But, I think the linguistic craft exhibited by Jessie Eisenberg payed off — big time.

If there was a geek message in this film, I didn’t really get it. The obsessive passion driving the protagonist seemed to be personal power, not discovery of how the world works — a hallmark of real geeks. He had enough technical talent to build a web application, but it was just a technical means to a social end, he came across as sort of an Internet impresario, not a wizard, a guy who never wanted the party to end, only to get bigger. His curiosity was too circumscribed, too power-centric, to convey the joyful intellectual play that geeks are usually associated with. That’s my two cents on the film’s theme.

But, an important question to ponder in this age of Facebook and Twitter, and the burgeoning world of social media apps, is whether and how these abilities to maintain communications among individuals and groups will impact future linguistic change. In past millennia humans did not travel and communicate to the extent which they now are; the conditions for communities to become physically and linguistically isolated from each other, of having only limited contact for prolonged periods, was much greater than nowadays. The lack of roads used to be a barrier to communication, but there are now cell towers even without roads, and people are communicating. Furthermore, unlike the 20th-century broadcast models (which passively provide standard linguistic forms to wide audiences), modern social media is interactive, more in line with speaking and writing than with passive listening (as in broadcast). Will all this interaction mean that, in three or four hundred years, we will not have branching separate dialects to compare from an earlier root form, but instead the data will show fairly constant waves of borrowings back and forth among speech communities.? Will it be possible to construct a branching tree of related languages/dialects or will it look more like a network?

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